This critical essay discusses the challenges and prospects for the reform of school-based literacy programs. It begins with an overview of the effects of a decade of test-driven accountability policy on research and teachers’ work, noting the continuing challenges of new demographics, cultures and technologies for literacy education. The case is made that whole school literacy programs can make a difference in improving the overall education of students and youth from low socioeconomic and cultural minority backgrounds. But this requires a strong emphasis on engagement with substantive readings of cultural, social and scientific worlds through talk, reading and writing. The key questions facing teachers, then, are not simply around basic skills instruction and acquisition, but about sustained, intellectually demanding and scaffolded talk around texts, print and multimodal.